National Audit Office reports on progress on courts and tribunals reform programme
Report finds focus on quick implementation has increased the burden on courts
The UK National Audit Office’s (NAO) latest report on the progress made concerning the courts and tribunals reform programme, finds that the focus by the HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) on implementing the reforms quickly has increased the burden on the criminal justice system, which is already under pressure from a substantial backlog of cases. Overall, HMCTS does not expect to be able to complete delivery of the reform programme in December 2023 as planned.
The HMCTS reform package, which dates back to an initial set of reforms instigated in 2016, aims to modernise the justice system by introducing new technology and working practices to increase efficiency and reduce complexity, such as moving activity out of the courtroom, streamlining processes and introducing online services.
The NAO finds that whilst HMCTS has improved plans to evaluate the impact of the £1.3bn court reform programme, it still has limited understanding of whether the reforms are actually delivering the benefits envisaged. Some services delivered by HMCTS are not currently operating as efficiently as expected, according to the progress report, for example many online divorce and probate cases have required manual intervention despite the project being marked as complete.
The progress report identifies the case management system for criminal courts, overwise known as the Common Platform, as the area of most concern. HMCTS is advised to work with users to ensure that the ongoing technical problems are addressed. HMCTS officials voted to strike at the end of last year in protest to the rollout of the Common Platform IT system, which was said to be responsible for an increase in staff stress and health conditions caused by overworking.
Head of the NAO, Gareth Davies, said: “This has been a complex and challenging programme for HMCTS to deliver, not least due to the impact of the pandemic. While the programme has continued to make progress, the decision to rollout the common platform without sufficient assurance has put avoidable pressure on the courts at a critical time. As HMCTS develops plans to adjust the programme it is essential that it builds in sufficient time to learn as it goes and promptly address any performance concerns. It must also develop its approach to benefits realisation to secure value for money from the £1.3 billion of taxpayers’ money it has invested.”
Commenting on the findings in the progress report, Law Society of England and Wales President, Lubna Shuja said: “We support the government’s investment in a reform programme to modernise and improve court services, however those reforms must not come at the expense of justice. Our concern, reflected in the NAO’s report, is that delays in the courts are being exacerbated by ineffective reforms, which are costing more time and wasting money.”